Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chauranga: Review

Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2014. It won the India Gold award for best film there, but is only now being released in theatres. Those who saw Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor at the 2015 edition of the festival will feel at least a partial sense of déjà vu when they watch Mishra’s film. Though Haraamkhor centres on sexual politics and Chauranga on class and caste, they’re both gritty, coming-of-age tales set in sleepy hamlets, with similarly bleak world views and jarring, if somewhat unconvincing, endings.

Chauranga begins with Santu (Soham Maitra), a young Dalit boy, and Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen), his schoolgoing elder brother, being slapped and humiliated by two upper-caste louts. This is the first in a series of injustices that make up the majority of this film’s narrative. Though the film is stark and appropriately indie-ish, the characterizations are familiar: The Brahmins in this village are sadistic and sexually rapacious, the Dalits are servile and virtuous. Santu and Bajrangi’s mother, Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee), is the mistress of Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the wealthy Brahmin overlord of the village. Dhaval is the sort of cruelly charismatic character who might have taken over a film like this, but the affable Suri can’t summon up the requisite shades. We’re never sure if Dhaval is classist and casteist but not entirely unfeeling (he pays Bajrangi’s school bills) or just an all-out terrible person (he smashes his daughter’s face into a mirror).

While the trailer plays up the unlettered Santu’s attempts to send a love letter to Dhaval’s daughter, this plot strand is never developed to any significant degree. Mishra instead focuses on injustices large and small: a blind priest (a scary Dhritiman Chatterjee) mercilessly beating a pig for straying into a temple compound; Santu riding the statue of Nandi (for him, it’s a bull, not a god); Dhaval’s long-suffering wife transforming into a “goddess”, of the sort shown in the recent Kajarya. The film suffers from what one might call excessive foreshadowing: If there’s a huge rock shown earlier, you can be sure it’ll play a part later on in the narrative.

This is Mishra’s first feature film; earlier, he ran the film website DearCinema. Apart from a couple of unnecessary reaction shots early on, he displays an unflashy, at times viscerally powerful, style. There’s no denying that the film is unflinching, unafraid to show Dalit village life as the series of compromises it often is. Had the performances been stronger, the accents more convincing and the ideas more novel, Chauranga might have achieved something like the dramatic power of recent Marathi-language films about childhood. The film ends with a young boy running for, and from, his life—a device favoured by first-time directors from François Truffaut to Vikramaditya Motwane. Here, it felt less than cathartic.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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